As an oil painter who tends toward “moosh” rather than clean graphic edges, I have found myself pondering the stitched line intrinsic to my quilted paintings. They change the moosh that I so often fall into, adding a different set of visual ideas.

So, if you’ll forgive me, I want to explore notions of line — line mostly as it is generally described and discussed in design classes, but more particularly as it works in quilted art. [ed. note: This turned out to be more of an essay than I had intended. If you wish, you can just look at the pretty pictures.]

Painted Hills Bluff, detail (Work in Progress)

Line is important in design, particularly, of course, in drawing. It moves the eye, evokes feelings, defines or suggests shape, can make value and depth, and can be varied to vary its expressive quality. In quilted art, line functions in all these ways, but can have a weight and value different from that found in drawing and is far more inportant than line is in painting. In conventional photography, line seems to have minor function, but art photography often makes extensive use of line.

Originally the quilting line was structural and functional. Over time, its usage in the US acquired certain conventions and standards (probably because of dressmaking conventions and county extension agents). The convention was that quilting stitches should be small and even, that the back thread should be hidden by burying it in the middle layer of batting, that regular patterns of grids, feathers, florals, stitch-in-the-ditch, and echo quilting were sufficient designs for the quilted stitch.

However, as artists took up stitching fabric and making quilted art, the conventions quickly gave way to attention to design elements, and the quilted line began to evolve. It became as important to the visual effect as the more obvious surface design.

The quilting line can be of many colors and weights, and decisions about whether to choose a hue similar to the background or to pick a complementary hue, whether to use a thin embroidery weight thread or a thick yarn sewn from the back, all became tools with which the artist could work.


Shore Pine. detail

Some stitching is meant to be unobtrusive, to push the background back. The basic stitch that serves this purpose is called a stipple stitch, which varies in its character and shape but has as its purpose flattening and giving an all-over appearance to the stitched area.


Arabesque, detail

Line, as we know, describes shape, and the quilting line can also serve this purpose. It can describe a contour or outline a shape. A shape echoed by a quilting line has a clarity about it that is pleasing. It can be a kind of shorthand for a more thoroughly painted out form.

Above Cant Ranch

However, the stitched line can also serve to contradict the shape, to pull and distort it, and in this, it serves the purpose that only an impasto line of paint can serve.



And the extended use of the echo stitch, a continuing of the contour, enlarges and makes fir outward movement. In the example below, the image is relatively static, but given movement by the stitching. The regular spacing of the stitched lines reminds me of etchings, but the shadowing and puffing of the fabric can only be done in textiles.


The Dream

And a quilted grid or regular figure behind a painted surface can help control or change the emotional weight of the surface figuration:

Ms Patsy

The quilting line, like the lines found in drawings and paintings, can be implied as well as obvious. They can provide movement around the canvas, following the implied lines.


Zen View Red

The direction of the line, as design instructors have told us since time immemorial, can indicate peace (centered/horizontal), calm vitality (vertical), or movement (diagonals).


The Mother of Us All, Detail

The quilting line, in short, is extremely expressive — as it varies in its tight or looseness, the weight of the thread and the density of the application, the curve or flow or jaggedness or griddedness or angularity — it can enclose or jolt, dance or confuse.


Interior: all Silk

Line can even be overlapped until it becomes shape — traditional etchers were masters at this, and the use of embroidery in quilt art can likewise make its own forms.


Pussy Willow

A few other ways line is used — for perspective:


Montana Garden

And for suggestions of ideas or emotions, not quite clear but highly evocative:


Mrs. Willard Waits, detail

Finally, part of the difference between the line on the canvas or paper and the line in a quilted surface resides in the textured quality that only quilting can give. A quilting line makes a shadow because it pushes the quilt sandwich into itself and puffs the non-quilted space outward, shading the edges. A quilted line engaging the abutting cloth makes shading and modeling of its own accord. It isn’t merely a moving dot, it becomes a swath across the surface of the cloth. It make air palpable; it creates folds of meaning and desire where only color existed before.


Clothesline, Detail


Miocene, detail

What part does line have in your work? Hanneke used an exquisite line around the edge of the open peach, a line that feels precisely right. Sunil is moving away from line into more painterly work. Steve is abstracting his photographs until line and shape become predominate.

For me, as enamored of stretched canvas and oil paints as I am, I still find enormous power in the stitched quilting line. .


Painted Hills Bluff, work in progress (see the pins?)